The ingredients were all there; a project of love by Queen Latifah, HBO Films, Dee Rees, the phenomenal director whose feature film debut was the powerful character study of Black stud lesbianism "Pariah"; producers Lili and Richard Zanuck (yes those Zanucks) and Shakim Compere (Beauty Shop, Just Wright). That pedigree along with the life and legend of Bessie Smith should have been a five-star Zagat winner but the movie ended up being a routine night at Applebee's albeit with your best drunk girlfriends.
Born in 1894 in Chattanooga, TN, Bessie started singing early and by her eighteenth birthday was performing on the stage in a traveling troupe with her brother. After a short time under the wing of Blues singer Ma Rainey, Smith set out on her own and within a decade would become the biggest and highest paid Black entertainer of her time. Unlike modern performers, raised on social media and TMZ like Nikki Minaj or Rihana, Bessie Smith didn't seek out the spotlight and her often illicit, ill-temper and bawdy behavior put her at odds with early 20th Century sensibilities. She drank, smoked, fought and screwed anybody and anything she liked.
I must say Bessie was a good-looking movie. Oftentimes Hollywood throws Black actors under the bus with bad lighting and lens effects. Think of those horrible 80s high school yearbook pictures with those hideous blue backgrounds. Cinematographer Jeff Jur, production designer Clark Hunter, along with art director Drew Monahan did a spectacular job making the diverse cast look good. A special shout-out to costume designer Michael T. Boyd (Secretariat, Into the West). Some of the clothes were anachronistic but he did a fantastic job of dressing the actors. So often--as in movies/ television series like The Great Gatsby, Titanic and Downton Abbey--we see costume silhouettes designed for reed thin women. Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique ain't them. I was so glad he was not afraid to use both color and fit to give the main characters a real period feel. Some of the background costumes were out of step but the main cast looked casket sharp.
As casting goes I think Queen Latifah was a bit out of her depth in this role. She has the natural swagger to pull off Bessie Smith's more outrageous behavior but when it came to the movie's more rigorous scenes, like when her marriage was collapsing, I felt like she retreated into Khadijah James. In one scene where she had to confront her older sister Viola (Khandi Alexander) who had abused her as a child Latifah was so stiff I was hoping Ragine, Max and Sinclair would appear through the door singing "In a 90s kinda world..." just to give her some relief. Now that's not to say she turned in a bad performance because she didn't. There were some parts that were heartfelt and brave--going nude for almost a full minute. Mo'Nique was excellent playing Ma Rainey--but I must say it was Mo'Nique playing Mo'Nique the way she thought Mo'Nique would play Ma Rainey if you can understand that. Of all the actors I think Michael K. Williams, as her manager-husband-sparing partner Jack Gee, did the best with what had been written. His willfulness and violence were supposed to come across as dangerous and sexy, but the way the movie was edited he seemed to be a bit unhinged at times. I feel he was the story's strongest performer and constituted the Greek Chorus of the film. Even in the movie's more salacious moments of lesbian sex and gender bending (Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith would often dress in boy drag) it just didn't seem as shocking or groundbreaking as I'm sure it was in the early 1920s. I would have liked for Dee Rees to pull something more subversive from her performers.
The biggest miss for me was the music. Other than a few stage numbers the movie was basically devoid of Bessie Smith's songs. Instead we got a score written by Rachel Portman (Belle, Cider House Rules) that was just too romantic for me. It put a collar on the film and wouldn't let it move freely and was too manipulative for a movie about such a freewheeling woman. I would have preferred Bessie to punctuate Bessie.